Legislators call on DAs to be aggressive going after abusive priests
By Ivey Dejesus
March 9, 2016
|Three Pennsylvania legislators on Wednesday urged District Attorneys across the Commonwealth to aggressively pursue leads and evidence that could expose abusive priests. A grand jury report recently found that more than 50 priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese for decades abused hundreds of children.|
Photo by Mark Pynes
|House Judiciary Committee Chairman Ron Marsico said that while only a few states have longer windows for their civil statute of limitations, he supports abolishing the criminal statute of limitation for future criminal prosecutions.|
Photo by Mark Pynes
Fallout from the findings of a grand jury report released last week showing that the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese for decades knew and concealed the sexual abuse of hundreds of children at the hands of priests spilled into the Capitol on Wednesday.
Three state legislators called on all district attorneys across the commonwealth to aggressively pursue abusive Catholic priests.
They also took their gloves off after years of fighting to reform laws designed to empower victims of child sex abuse and vowed to once and for all advance reform legislation.
At a news conference in the state Capitol, state Reps. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) and Tom Murt (R- Montgomery/Phila.) urged district attorneys throughout the state to pursue every possible lead that may lead to evidence in the investigation and prosecution of abusive priests.
Frank Burns, (D-Cambria), who was also scheduled to participate in the press conference, was unwell and unable to attend.
The legislators urged the local top law enforcement officials to, if necessary, subpoena records in child sex abuse cases, as well as conduct grand jury investigations wherever multiple allegations arise.
Their call for more aggressive efforts on part of law enforcement comes at the heels of a grand jury investigation report that details widespread abuse of hundreds of children over four decades by more than 50 priests in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
The two-year investigation yielded 115,042 documents - including handwritten notes, letters and personnel files - that showed that diocesan officials knew about the abuse and concealed it.
The report also implicated local law enforcement officials - including police officials and district attorneys - who at times looked the other way and failed to execute the full weight of their office in investigating allegations of abuse.
Rozzi urged district attorneys to investigate multiple allegations of clergy sex abuse, and even launch their own grand jury investigations.
"I don't think we are asking for too much here," said Rozzi, who is a survivor of clergy sex abuse. "I don't think we are asking DAs to do anything outside of the law."
He urged district attorneys to "uphold the law" and follow any evidence they have in order to expose abusive priests.
"How could any child ever get justice in that diocese," Rozzi said. "Not only a child was abused, the law was abused."
In an unequivocal show of determination, Rozzi and Murt took turns at the podium to say they would do all possible to advance legislation designed to protect and serve victims of child sex abuse.
Rozzi has for years sponsored legislation that would reform the statute of limitations and offer victims of child sex abuse a window of opportunity to come forward and seek justice.
His legislation - and a handful of other similar pieces of legislation both in the House and the Senate - have languished or failed to advance at every turn.
A current bill - House Bill 951, sponsored by Murt - would provide a two-year window for victims to seek civil action against abusers.
"The laws need to be change because the laws were abused," Rozzi said.
Such a measure was recommended not only by the grand jury in the Altoona-Johnstown case, but as well, the 2003, 2005 and 2001 grand juries out of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia clergy sex abuse case.
Yet another bill, introduced in the past, supports the complete elimination of criminal statutes in child sex abuse cases.
Rozzi said he and Murt were within "days or weeks" in seeking a discharge resolution, which would move the bill out of the House Judiciary Committee. Rozzi's previous proposed bills languished in the judiciary committee, which is chaired by Rep. Ron Marsico (R-Dauphin).
"We are giving Ron Marsico time to do what is right," Rozzi said. "We urge the chairman to do what is right."
Rozzi vowed to "take action" to ensure the bill advanced. He said that Attorney General Kathleen Kane on Wednesday assured him that the provisions of the bill were constitutional.
Shortly after the conclusion of the press conference, Marsico issued a statement in regard to the Altoona-Johnstown report and pending legislation.
"All of the members of the Judiciary Committee are horrified to learn of the recent allegations of child sexual abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and our prayers go out to the victims and their families," he said in the statement.
Marsico said support abolishing the criminal statute of limitation for future criminal prosecutions.
"In addition, I further believe there should not be any differences between public or private entities in these situations," he wrote.
He said the judiciary committee planned to "work expeditiously to move legislation to strengthen our laws already in place" and send it to the House floor for a full vote.
Advocates for victims of clergy sex abuse have long contended that Marsico, among several lawmakers, are beholden to the powerful lobbying might of the Catholic Church, whose legislative branch in the Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
Officials from the conference have long said a major reform to the statutes would create an "unworkable situation." They point out that cases involving allegations from 30, 40 and 50 years ago would be difficult to try given that memories fade, evidence may be lost and perpetrators or witnesses may be deceased.
Rozzi on Wednesday said: "Our memories don't fade."
Murt said he had "engaged" Marsico in conversation about the legislation many times, even pleading with him. He said his entreaties had been "rebuffed with extreme prejudice."
Murt, who speculated that there may be "thousands, maybe millions" of victims of child sex abuse, noted that the average age of victims who come forth is 42. Many, he said, do not come forward and deal with the trauma of their abuse silently, often in destructive ways.
"Why would they?" Murt said. "The statute of limitations has expired. They can't charge their abuser criminally and they can't go after them in civil action."
The current proposed bill would give abuse victims up to age 50 to file a civil action against their abuser. Currently, that age limit is 30; the age limit for criminal prosecutions in these cases is 50.
Rozzi said that in recent days since the release of the grand jury report out of Altoona, he has been inundated with calls from victims of clergy sex abuse in that diocese.
Rozzi added that he gets calls from victims from all diocese, including Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
"We are very very passionate about this issue," he said. "This issue is about justice.